Artists Portraits

Brian Wall sculptor

(b. 5th September 1931)

Brian Wall photographed by Adrian Flowers, on 6th February 1963

In 1956, Adrian Flowers visited the sculptor Brian Wall at his studio at Custom House Lane, Porthmeor in St. Ives. Using 120mm colour transparency stock, Flowers photographed a series of painted wood constructions by Wall, setting them up not in the studio but in the open air, on the flat sands of the beach. With titles such as Construction No. 1 and Construction No. 10, the modular black and white frames of these early works by Wall suggest the steel supports of Modernist buildings, while their inner panels, painted in primary colours, are in some ways the realisation in three-dimensional form of paintings by Mondrian.

Brian Wall with his “Construction” sculptures on St Ives Beach, 1956

Flowers photographed Wall and his sculptures several times over the following decades. A sequence of black and white portrait shots taken in February 1963 show Wall assuming various poses; seated, in close-up, head and shoulders, smiling, smoking a cigarette, making funny expressions, hand under chin. He appears by turns thoughtful, quizzical, good-humoured, tough and determined. One sheet of contact prints shows him seated on a high stool. A folder [ref 4456] also contains several large-scale prints, made from these negatives.

Contact sheet, Brian Wall photographed by Adrian Flowers, 6th February 1963

Born in Paddington on 5th September 1931, Brian Wall’s childhood was spent in London, although during WWII he was evacuated to Yorkshire. After the war he left school, aged fourteen, to work as a glassblower in a factory. In 1949 he enlisted in the RAF for two years, where he trained as an aerial photographer (as had Adrian Flowers and Len Deighton), before enrolling at Luton College of Art. Deciding to become a painter, in 1954 Wall settled in St. Ives, where initially he worked at the Tregenna Castle Hotel. Shortly afterwards he met Peter Lanyon, who helped him find a studio in Custom House Lane, where Wall worked alongside Terry Frost, Patrick Heron and Sandra Blow. In 1955 he was introduced by Denis Mitchell to Barbara Hepworth, becoming her first studio assistant. He also met David Lewis, who had written on the work of Mondrian and Brancusi, and in 1956 was elected a member of the Penwith Society, exhibiting his work in the Society’s annual shows.

Adrian Flowers photographing Brian Wall, February 1963

During these years, starting with the painted wood constructions, Wall developed his own sculpture practice, but quickly moved on making works in welded steel. The year after his first one-person show at the Architectural Association in 1957, he was included in the Arts Council exhibition Contemporary British Sculpture, and he also showed with the Drian and Grabowski galleries. In 1959, an article on his work was published in Architectural Design. Moving back to London, Wall became active in fine art education, serving on the National Council for Diplomas in Art and Design, and also on the Arts Council of Great Britain. In 1961-2, he taught at Ealing College of Art, before being appointed Head of Sculpture at the Central School of Art (now Central St. Martins), where William Turnbull and Barry Flanagan were also teaching. In 1961 Wall represented England at the 2nd Paris Biennale, and over the following years his work was shown in exhibitions throughout Britain. He featured in Bryan Robertson and John Russell’s 1965 Private View, a book documenting the rise of London as a centre for contemporary art.

A subsequent set of photographs [ref 5562] taken in London by Adrian Flowers record a series of medium and smaller sized welded steel sculptures by Wall, such as Untitled Steel Sculpture, Black 1964. Some were photographed in a studio setting, others in a laneway outside the artist’s studio. Several feature discs, and circles juxtaposed with straight pieces of steel, such as One Disc (1966); others are purely angular and geometric. Other photographs show the artist in his home, with family members, sculptures displayed on tables, and a geometric abstract painting on the wall.

In 1967 Wall had a solo exhibition at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and was included in the Tate’s British Sculpture in the Sixties. On 25th March of the following year his Always Advancing, a large public sculpture in the form of two A’s, was sited at Thornaby-on-Tees in Yorkshire. In 1968, Wall’s sculptures were included in an exhibition organised by the Whitechapel Art Gallery, New British Painting and Sculpture, that toured to cities in North America, including Portland, Vancouver, Chicago, Houston and San Francisco. The artist visited the US several times, becoming friendly with Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and the writer Clement Greenberg. In 1969, when the exhibition was shown at the art museum at Berkeley University, he was invited to become a visiting Professor there, and returned the following year, becoming a permanent faculty member in 1972. Although there were artists working in steel before Wall settled in San Francisco, they tended to work in less ‘pure’ modes. His presence in the area influenced several artists, including Fletcher Benton, to begin working directly, in a more abstract way, with welded steel. Taking up US citizenship, Wall became recognised more as an American sculptor and was appointed Chair of the Art Department at Berkeley, a post he held until his retirement in 1994. Throughout his teaching career, he continued to make his own work, setting up a studio and workshop in Oakland, where his assistant is the sculptor Grant Irish. He prefers to make his sculptures directly, working with pieces of steel on a one to one scale, rather than constructing maquettes, or working from drawings. This invests Wall’s work with qualities of lightness that are often absent in large-scale abstract metal sculptures. His pieces appear to teeter, tilt and turn. Circles, cylinders, I-beams and plates hover and jostle playfully. In spite of the massive scale, and the industrial materials he employs, there is a palpable pleasure and joy in his work.

Although Wall rejects the term “Constructivist” to describe his work—on the basis that his work does not relate to architecture, but emerges from a process of intuitive development—there is no mistaking the Central European and revolutionary Russian tradition of industrial materials used to make abstract art. This Constructivist tradition had been promoted in Cornwall during the war years by Naum Gabo, leading Ben Nicholson to adopt a pure minimalist approach to abstraction. Nicholson was an early influence on Wall who, from the outset, steered clear of the expressionist styles of Lynn Chadwick, Reg Butler and Kenneth Armitage, as well as the organic forms of Hepworth and Henry Moore.

A retrospective exhibition of Wall’s sculptures, organised by the Seattle Art Museum in 1982, toured to SFMoMa. The exhibition included two early St. Ives painted wood constructions; Metamorphosis (1955) and Right Angle Deck Construction with Vertical Movement (1956)—both revealing how close the artist had been to architecture at the outset of his career. Although most of the works in the Seattle show were from the 1960’s and 1970’s, including the brightly-painted Early Yellow (1975), there were more recent sculptures too, including October Jump (1981), in which two I-beam girders are supported by cylindrical and plate steel forms. Through the last four decades, Wall continued to exhibit in the UK, showing at Flowers Gallery in 2008 and 2011; he also showed with Flowers in Los Angeles, Max Hutchinson in New York, and with John Berggruen and Hackett Mills in San Francisco. In 2006, a monograph on his work, written by Chris Stephens, was published by Momentum Press 2006, and in 2014 Wall established a foundation to benefit working artists. As recently as 2015 a solo show held at the de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University featured sculptures monumental in scale but light in feeling, reflecting Wall’s interest in Zen Buddhism—an interest which began in St. Ives in the 1950’s, and continues to inspire his work to the present day.

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright.

Adrian Flowers Archive ©

For further reading, refer to Brian Wall by Chris Stephens, Suzaan Boettger and Barry Munitz. Momentum publishing 2006.

Artists in St Ives

Peter Lanyon

1918 – 1964

Peter Lanyon in his studio in St Ives, early August 1954.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

In early August 1954, Adrian and Angela Flowers visited Peter Lanyon in ‘The Attic Studio’ in St. Ives, to photograph both the artist and his work. The results are preserved in two rolls of 120 black and white negative film held in the Adrian Flowers Archive. In one photograph, wearing his trademark black beret, and dressed in short-sleeved shirt and sleeveless pullover, Lanyon demonstrates the mixing of artists’ colours, using a muller (mortar) and glass sheet. Another image shows the artist leaning against a cupboard, with Angela seated on a couch beside him. In the background is a book press and a rotary grindstone. Hanging on the wall is the 1948 painting Headland (Tate collection). A third photograph shows the artist standing before his studio easel, pointing out details in a large painting in progress, Blue Boat and Rainstorm. In another image, Lanyon, smiling, leans against his workbench. On the windowsill stands a construction, while hanging on the wall is an antelope horn—a trophy probably brought back from South Africa, where Lanyon, aged twenty, had visited relatives. Also photographed were the slender columnar 1948 Construction, the 1951 Porthleven Boats, both now in the Tate collection, and Construction for Bojewyan Farms, a painted sculpture of curving forms dating from 1952 and now in a private collection. Another work photographed by Flowers that day include Lanyon’s plaster sculpture of a bull, from his Europa series. This was a work in progress, with copper pipes projecting from the animal’s head, forming an armature for plaster horns. The concept for the classically-inspired Europa series had taken shape in Anticoli Corrado, the hilltop town east of Rome, where Lanyon and his wife Sheila had stayed for four months the previous year.

Peter Lanyon with Blue Boat and Rainstorm in 1954, observed by Angela Flowers.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Lanyon was pleased with the photographs, and wrote to Flowers not long afterwards, requesting permission to use a black and white image of one of the works photographed during that session, for a book being produced by Patrick Heron. Lanyon offered to call to Flowers’ studio when he was in London on Monday 20th September, to collect the photograph. To assist Flowers in identifying the work [Construction for St. Just (1952, Tate collection)], Lanyon included a sketch in his letter [PL to AF at 44A Dover Street, letter in AF Archive c Sept 1954]. A painted sculpture made from discarded window panes, and inspired by pencil and charcoal sketches of the town that was once the centre of the Cornish tin mining industry, Construction for St. Just reveals how Lanyon was not only inspired by the art of Naum Gabo, but also used his own three-dimensional works to guide the completion of paintings, described them as akin to the scaffolding used to support a building in progress. In 1953, the painting that resulted from this process, St. Just, was shown at the Hanover Gallery in London in Space in Colour, an exhibition selected by Patrick Heron. It is now also in the Tate collection.

Just ten years later, the early death of Lanyon robbed British art of one of its stars. His career had been short but brilliant, his work carrying forward a Romantic vision, in which the energy and zest of Cornwall’s coastal landscape was infused with European formalism and Mediterranean colour, resulting in paintings that are in every way equal to the best abstract expressionist work produced in America, but also infused with a sense of history and human endeavour.

Peter Lanyon in his studio, August 1954

Born into a well-off mining family, and educated at Clifton College in Bristol, Lanyon had taken great pride in his Cornish ancestry. Photography and music were part of his early education, and while still a teenager he took painting lessons with Borlase Smart in St Ives. In 1937 Adrian Stokes advised Lanyon to enroll at the Euston Road School, where Victor Pasmore and Naum Gabo were tutors, and he studied also at the Penzance School of Art. Back in St. Ives, it was inevitable that Lanyon would meet Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, who had moved to Cornwall in the 1930’s, as did Gabo. During WWII, Lanyon served as a flight mechanic with the RAF in North Africa and Palestine. He was also stationed in Southern Italy for two years, during which time he painted murals and gave lectures on art. He ran an art education workshop for servicemen, developing his own austere, psycho-analytical, but optimistic approach to art. In 1946 he married Sheila St John Browne and over the next decade they had six children; their son Andrew also becoming an artist. Lanyon was inspired by Ben Nicholson’s approach to abstraction, and during the 1940’s made constructions that show the influence of both Nicholson and Gabo. He was a founding member of the Penwith Society of Arts in 1949, and had his first exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery in London that same year. In 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain, the newly-created Arts Council commissioned sixty artists to create large-scale paintings. One of these, Porthleven (British Council collection), an abstract work by Lanyon, is ambitious and hectic, crammed full of allusions to birds, gliders, harbours and quays, the composition surmounted by the clock tower of the Bickton-Smith Institute overlooking the harbour of Porthleven. Lanyon, Heron and Bryan Wynter were also included in the exhibition “Abstract Art”, curated by Adrian Heath at the AIA Gallery, and in another important show, British Abstract Art, held at Gimpel Fils, that same year.
In the early 1950’s Lanyon taught at Corsham College of Art, where William Scott was also a tutor, and later that decade he, William Redgrave and Terry Frost ran a school, at St. Peter’s Loft in St. Ives, with Nancy Wynne-Jones among the artists attending. Lanyon’s first New York exhibition was at the Catherine Viviano Gallery in 1957, when he met Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and other artists. Over the following years he showed regularly at the Viviano Gallery. There was a demand for Lanyon’s work in the US, and in 1962 he painted a mural in the house of Stanley Seeger, in New Jersey. Initially tightly constructed, Lanyon’s work during the 1960’s became freer and more painterly. He took up gliding so as to appreciate the physical beauty of the Cornish landscape from the air, but died in a gliding accident in 1964, aged just forty-six.

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright

Adrian Flowers Archive ©